On the first day of February, the media announced that master thief John Smith had stolen all the money in the world. By the time this news went out, everyone had already begun to notice that their credit and debit accounts were empty. The banks found themselves fundless. Annoyance ran high all over the planet.
How did this happen? Digital cash, Smith a hacker’s hacker.
Murray Posner drove a taxi cab. His first fare of the day climbed in and handed him a credit card. He ran it and it came back empty.
“That’s impossible,” the passenger said. “I’ve already used it today.”
“Well, it’s zero now,” Murray said, regret in his voice. He did not like to refuse anyone.
Just then, his dispatcher called him.
“Everyone’s card is being denied,” she said. “Must be a glitch in the system. Take the fare where she wants to go, write down the amount, have her sign it, and give her a copy. We’ll bill her later.”
Smith the thief, in a communique, said that he’d give the money back. All he wanted was recognition as the greatest cyberthief in the history of thievery, and a harem comprised of the thousand most beautiful, intelligent young women in the world. A legal marriage between him and the lot of them. Single ceremony. Good conversationalists, they had to be, all of them. That was a must.
Before the world’s governments could get organized and react to Smith’s demands with a slapdash beauty contest of some sort, master theif Robert Brown stole all the money from Smith. He too said that he’d give it back, not to Mr. Smith but to its original owners, and that as he was happily married, he didn’t require a harem; he just wanted to show Mr. Smith up. Oh, and also, he wanted to be acknowledged as the world’s greatest thief and, incidentally, the ruler of the world. King of the world, actually.
Murray’s wife called from the supermarket.
“Everyone’s card is being declined,” she told him. “It’s crazy.”
“Same here,” Murray said. “We’re just keeping track and delivering folks to their destinations.”
“That’s what they’re doing here,” his wife said. “They check you out and write down what you owe. It slows the lines a little, but otherwise it’s business as usual.”
Before the world’s governments could crown Brown in a slapdash ceremony, and with the citizenery clamoring for his coronation so that everyone could get back on track, master thief Cleo Jones let it be known that she herself had stolen one third of Mr. Brown’s ill-gotten gains. Simultaneously, Mr. Smith proclaimed that he too had swiped back about a third of the moolah from Jones.
This left a third of the world’s money in each of the three thieves’ hands.
Meanwhile, Murray had a doctor in his cab.
“I’ve got three operations to perform today,” the doctor said.
“What if the patients never get their money back?” Murray said.
“What am I supposed to do, let them die?” the doctor said.
Murray glanced up as he drove. The morning sky was clear, a deepening blue. A single contrail ran its length, feathering behind the plane that left it. A sudden stab of worry struck the driver, concern for his family, for his children. After the doctor got out, Murray called his wife.
“The teachers are reassuring the kids,” she said. “They’ll stay with their classes as long as it takes to get the money back, even if that means weeks without pay.”
Murray was glad to hear it.
“We can’t deliver your paychecks today,” the dispatcher told the drivers. “Stay on and we’ll keep track and make good as soon as we can.”
The drivers kept at it.
The thieves Smith and Brown stood by their demands. Cleo Jones gave back her third of the loot, but despensed it according to her own lights – evenly – rather than giving the fat cats most of it. This caused delight or outrage, depending. Governments considered deleting all three thirds somehow and starting over, but it just seemed easier to hook Smith up with all the women he could handle, annoint Brown king of the world, ignore the complaining rich who were coming up short vis a vis the Cleo returns, and go home, now that a king was running things, which they did.
In his cab, Marray learned that the buses and trains and trucking companies were all still operating, keeping track of thier business. Farmers were farming. Zoos fed their animals. When Murray needed gas, the station let him fill up, noting the amount he pumped. Twice, high school students got in and asked to be taken downtown. This was something new and Murray refused to do it. They were just out for a lark. A dentist told him that she had refused to cap a woman’s teeth because she felt that the woman would not have asked for the procedure in normal times.
King Brown sat down on his throne, a huge naughyde Lazyboy, and immediately issued a proclamation making clear that he was Thief Number One. He taxed Smith so severely that the man couldn’t feed his harem and was left destitute. Brown lined up the fat cats behind him by snatching away Cleo the Robin Hood’s money from the undeserving formerly poor and middle class and giving it back to its original owners. The tabloids were upset that Smith’s mega-harem wasn’t able to get into mischief anymore. The millions who had benefitted from Cleo’s windfallsthreatened to riot. Smith and Brown worked together to steal Brown’s recliner. He was de-crowned.
From him vantage point behind the wheel of his taxi, Murray was amazed at the way the wheels of society and the economy, not to mention traffic, mysteriously continued to turn. The level of trust amongst the people seemed incredible, and yet everyone continued to keep track and life move on. The occasional ambulance or fire truck would pass him, sirens howling. No change there.
“I’m supposed to buy an island today,” said a rich guy whom Murray was taking to J. P. Morgan downtown. “The owner is desperate to sell because he needs the cash for some other deal that he’s doing. Of course, there is no cash.”
“You won’t get your island?” Murray said.
“I will get it,” the man said. “The world’s finanaces are becoming one giant escrow account. As long as we all go along, we’ll be OK. If a wealthy man or celebrity wants to buy a Lear jet, he can still do it. Lear doesn’t want to go out of business.”
It seemed to Murray that if the rich were finding a way to cope, the way that everyone else was, there was hope for the world.
He picked up a guy in a hurry to catch a flight.
“Break the speed limit if you have to,” the guy said to him. “What are they going to do, give you a ticket?”
“Since nobody can pay off a ticket anymore,” Murray said, “the police are suspending your right to drive for a while instead. I wouldn’t want that. Besides, I never speed. I’ve got a wife and children.”
In fact, it seemed to Murray that in the current crisis, folks were driving more carefully than ever.
Smith, Jones, and Brown announced that since the thieving pecking order was unresolved, they were thinking about stealing all the money again, but by now, money was somehow beginning to seem old-fashioned and clunky. Overrated. Folks were frankly sick of it. Everyone on the Internet, which is to say, everyone, agreed that money was, to coin a phrase, the root of all evil.
Gradually, Murray quit keeping track of his passengers’ fares. He noticed too that when he stopped for gas, the station attendants were not paying attention to the amount that he pumped.
A young, up-and-coming thief named Chiang Mai went ahead and stole it all again and was rewarded with a global yawn. Smith caused a news blip by stealing Jones and Brown themselves, and setting his angry harem on them, but that act was treated as a celebrity high jink. Thievery, like money, had become old news. A button reading “Take it, and screw you!” became popular.
As for so many others in the world, Murray’s life, and the life of his family, continued on a day-by-day basis, with ups and downs, triumphs and challenges, happiness and tears. He did more good than ill, and so did most of those he knew.
Crime did not disappear, of course, people being people. The crimes that counted for most now, however, concerned upsets to the new world order. For example, the master demagogue Marcel Parcel identified all of those office workers worldwide whose productivity level averaged 91% and convinced them, for bogus reasons, to call in sick for two straight weeks when they were in fact perfectly healthy. Now that was a real crime.